The lineage of NK cells and their relationship to T lymphocytes have been controversial issues. Since rearrangement of the T cell antigen receptor beta chain genes occurs early in the ontogeny and differentiation of all T cells, this can be used as an unequivocal marker to discriminate T from non-T lymphocytes. Recent studies (16-18) examining T cell antigen receptor gene rearrangement and expression in certain IL-2-dependent NK cell lines and leukemias have revealed that some lines rearrange C beta genes, whereas others do not. However, it is important to establish whether these cell lines are representative of the major population of NK cells freshly derived from the host. Herein, we have purified granulocytes, CD16+ NK cells and T lymphocytes from human peripheral blood, prepared genomic DNA from each cell type, and then examined the organization of their T cell antigen receptor genes by restriction enzyme analysis using a C beta cDNA as probe. The C beta genes were in germline configuration in NK cells and granulocytes. In contrast, peripheral blood T lymphocytes showed rearrangement of the C beta gene. These data support the hypothesis that the majority of human peripheral blood NK cells are fundamentally distinct from T lymphocytes in lineage and nonself recognition.